The four specially outfitted helicopters rose into midnight darkness from a U.S. military base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Carrying 79 commandos, the aircraft swooped east at low altitudes toward the Pakistani border and on to Abbottabad. It was May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden’s last day.
At 1 a.m. local time, the first Black Hawk to reach the bin Laden compound encountered a vortex caused by unexpectedly warm air and the enclosure’s high walls. The attack copter descended more rapidly than anticipated; its tail hit a wall and snapped off. The U.S. Army Special Forces pilot kept the hard landing under control, preventing casualties.
Members of SEAL Team 6, an elite U.S. Navy counterterrorism unit, received fire from a bin Laden courier in an outlying guesthouse. The SEALs killed the courier and his wife. The raiders then blew open the front door of the main house. They shot and killed the courier’s brother. Commandos began to climb a narrow set of stairs to a bedroom they assumed to be bin Laden’s.
Seven thousand miles away, President Obama monitored the operation from the White House. On a secure video hookup, Leon Panetta, the Central Intelligence Agency director, narrated the raid from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. “They’ve reached the target,” Panetta said.
On their way up the stairs, the SEALs encountered bin Laden’s son Khalid, who lunged toward the Americans. They shot him dead.
A tall man dressed in a Pakistani-style shalwar kameez poked his head out of a third-floor bedroom. The lead commando shot the man in the left eye, and he stumbled backwards. Three SEAL team members clambered after their quarry.
They found the man at the foot of a bed, blood and brains spilling from his head. The SEALs fired rounds into the mortally wounded man’s chest until he stopped moving. Two unloaded weapons, an AK-47 rifle and a Makarov pistol, rested near the bedroom door. Twenty minutes had passed since the Americans arrived.
The SEAL team photographed the tall man and transmitted the image to American officials.
“We have a visual on Geronimo,” Panetta said, using the code name for bin Laden. There was a pause. “Geronimo EKIA.” Enemy Killed In Action.
After a brief silence, the president spoke: “We got him,” Obama said.
Thirty-eight minutes after landing, three Black Hawks took off from the bin Laden compound. Before departing, the SEALs destroyed the damaged helicopter so it wouldn’t fall into hostile hands.
Bin Laden’s remains were flown to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea. The author of the Sept. 11 attacks, the man who fancied himself the “emir” of a revived Islamic “kalifa” spanning the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, was ritually bathed, administered Muslim funeral prayers in Arabic, and dropped into the water, 12 hours after he died.